Greetings, True Believers! Pull up a chair, light your pipe, and let us sit and tell sad stories of the death of heroes (however temporary those deaths might be – we’ll come back to that thought).
I was a good boy last month, so, for a treat, my wife kindly bought me the Blu-ray of Avengers: Infinity War, knowing I had enjoyed it when we saw it in the cinema. So, this week, once the kids were in bed, I sat down in the man cave (really just our family room, so it is also a woman and child cave, too) and indulged.
The second time through, you notice things that you hadn’t before. Sometimes, it’s neat, little details, like the fact that Peter Dinklage plays the tallest character in the film (Eitri), a dwarf that makes weapons. He is a dwarf, but he is bigger than anyone else. Sometimes, knowing what’s coming, one can begin to perceive larger themes and tropes. Seeing a film for the first time, especially on the big screen, is to experience wonder and discovery. At home, on the couch, we revel in the details and, absent novelty and newness, we seek deeper meanings.
For example, there is a repeated motif in the film of the inability to sacrifice something or someone leading to bigger problems. Quill cannot kill Gamora, even though he promised he would, and she is taken by Thanos to be murdered in exchange for the soul stone. Loki cannot let Thor die, even though it costs him one of the infinity stones and his own life. Vision argues that since Thanos plans to kill half the universe, “One life cannot stand in the way of defeating him,” to which Captain America responds, “But it should. We do not trade lives.” A noble sentiment, indeed. And one that the film repeatedly shows as problematic. Time and again, infinity stones are given up to save someone. “Three hundred dwarves lived on this ring. I thought if I did what he asked, they’d be safe,” Eitri tells Thor. They weren’t. Avengers, meet Mr. Spock. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. Vision gets it, why don’t you?
Peter Parker gets it. When Stark is castigating him for continuing to stay on the spaceship to help him and Doctor Strange, Parker responds, “You can’t be a friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man if there’s no neighborhood.” Doctor Strange gets it. He tells Stark, “If it comes to saving you or the kid or the time stone, I will not hesitate to let either of you die.” Vision gets it. He keeps asking Scarlett Witch to destroy the stone in his forehead. She refuses until it is too late. The goal of stopping Thanos is more important than the lives of the individual heroes. Their own idealism, love for one another, and very human flaws will inevitably get in the way every time.
The team on Titan almost stop Thanos, putting him to sleep and taking the gauntlet off. When he learns Gamora has been killed, however, Quill cannot stop hitting Thanos in the face, which awakens him and prevents them from getting the stones from him. Every time an Avenger moves to protect a fellow hero, they lose a little more ground in the fight.
In some ways, this film is the apotheosis of the post-9/11 superhero movie. Pre-9/11, the superhero film showed a good person fighting unusual villains. That hero was played by Christopher Reeve or Michael Keaton, while the villain was a fun character actor. The narrative was fairly comic book, in the pejorative sense (Apologies, Fangirls and Fanboys, but you know what I mean). After 9/11, we get Watchmen as a film finally. We get the Nolan Batman films. We get the MCU. The heroes are flawed, because as many problems as they solve, they must morally compromise to defeat the bad guy.
The other problem is that the heroes continually underestimate Thanos. They insist on treating him like a pre-9/11 comic book villain (literally). If we snark and then just beat him up or use our powers, they think, we will win. “We have a Hulk,” says Loki at the beginning of the film. Halfway through the film, the Hulk refuses to come out. The Guardians of the Galaxy assume Thanos won’t go to Earth first and so head to Knowhere, assuming he does not have the stones from Earth. He does. Gamora assumes he loves nothing but himself and his ideas. She’s wrong, too, and it costs her her life. The heroes always assume the villain will do the predictable, safe thing. He doesn’t. They cannot conceive that he actually plans to follow through on his desire to end half of the universe and thus assume he is crazy or evil or someone easily defeated. But he is not crazy, not by a long shot. They never look at Thanos’ actions from his perspective, which is part of the key to defeating him.
Thanos himself is a crusader who has amassed a number of close followers. He preaches a radical transformation of reality. To his followers, he is like Christ. To those who oppose him, he is the worst kind of demagogue, if one might invoke a parallel to Godwin’s Law. He displays, if you will forgive me, very Trump-like qualities. “Only I can save the universe,” he insists, “Only I see clearly.” “Reality can be whatever I want,” he tells Stark. His followers must constantly praise him. (Does this make Ebony Maw his Mike Pence?) He sees himself as unique and special, chosen to remake the universe the way he wants it. Once half the universe is dead, he will “watch the sun rise on a grateful universe,” which doesn’t even make sense, unless you’re Thanos. But Thanos acts with conviction. He knows he is right, no matter what the Democrats, I mean Avengers, say.
Thanos is a shorting of the Greek name Athanasios, meaning “immortal.” I am also assuming Jim Starlin, the creator of the character, conceived echoes of “thanatos,” Greek for death. (Indeed the two words are related, with “Athanasios” being seemingly closer to “deathless” than the English “immortal,” which is actually an Anglicization of the Latin word “deathless.”) Thus, the character’s name means both “death” and “deathless.” Thanos is the embodiment of death and the embodiment of deathlessness. He seeks to end half the universe, but he seeks to do so for sustainability. Thanos can just as easily be read as a leftist who wishes to remake the world to be more fair and just and is prepared to do so by any means necessary. There is plenty of Mao and Stalin in Thanos, as well. He believes he is doing the right thing. It seems a universal constant that intelligent species over consume resources and grow past their ability to sustain themselves. It happened on Titan, it happened on Gamora’s home world, and, if we are honest, it is happening right now on Earth. Gamora accuses him of killing half of those on her planet. The ones who are left, however, go to bed safe, warm, and with full bellies. What he does is fair, he insists, because it is random and all have an equal chance of being in the live/die column.
The problem, of course, is that Thanos is not wrong about sustainability. How he has chosen to preserve resources is not ideal. Indeed, we might see him as the opposite of the Avengers in the sense that he will sacrifice half of the universe to save the other half, while they will not even sacrifice one of them to save the others. He is too willing to throw life away; they treat it as too precious.
Let’s be honest – the infinity stones are merely a means to an end for him. He was already going from planet to planet, killing half the population one world at a time. This is what happened to Drax and Gamora. The stones just help him do what he was already doing more efficiently. The Avengers hand the stones over, one by one, to save a single life each time, knowing that the cost will be half the universe. Trillions for Iron Man. Trillions for Thor. Trillions for Vision. Not very heroic when you think about it.
What makes a hero? If A:IW is anything to go by, heroes come in all forms with all kinds of powers. The only thing that unites them all is snark and banter. If you do not know how to banter or be snarky, the Avengers have no use for you. In second place is a willingness to let strangers suffer in order to save a friend. In third place is a willingness to sacrifice one’s self, but no one else. Also, it helps if you like to blow stuff up.
One thing I will say, however, is that the film sets up for the Avengers' approach to be justified in the second half. While Stark is frustrated that Strange has given Thanos the time stone, Strange has already explained that he has visited all possible futures and in only one are the Avengers triumphant. Thus, all of Strange’s actions, including giving up the stone, are part of the timeline in which the Avengers can win. In other words, the tragic ending of the film is not the end of the characters who disintegrate.
And that is my problem watching the film the second time: the death of these characters is not real. Not in the sense that this is a fictional narrative, but in the world of graphic novels and cinema, nobody stays dead except Thomas and Martha Wayne, and even then - maybe. Also, it has become a cliché that to make your book edgy, you kill off major characters. Such a cliché, in fact, that it was mocked on The Simpsons season seven over twenty years ago in 1995! Episode two of that season, “Radioactive Man,” saw Milhouse brag of seeing the “special limited edition issue where he and Fallout Boy get killed on every page.” I laughed long and hard at that when it first aired, having lived through the death of Superman back in 1992 and 1988’s A Death in the Family in which DC gave fans the option and Jason Todd got beaten to death with a crowbar by the Joker. RIP, Boy Wonder. Except not. Because what we didn’t know then was that a shift in reality would cause Superboy Prime to resurrect Jason Todd who went on to become even more annoying in his adult life and that Eradicator would steal Superman's body and place it in a regeneration matrix in the Fortress of Solitude, thereby resurrecting him as well. (Duh!) That’s the problem with the deaths of superheroes: They don’t stay dead. How can we even feel sad when we know they’re not actually gone for long? Even those not killed by the stones but through actual, physical death – Gamora, Loki, the other 299 dwarves, for example – can be brought back through the reality stone.
Which also means that the inevitable sequel will most likely feature the resurrection of (almost) everyone. When you have infinity stones and can remake reality to your will, all those folks that Thanos destroyed can be brought back with a snap. It also begs the question if Thanos can now remake reality, rather than kill half the universe, why not create limitless renewable resources? Why not change our psychological makeup so we value sustainability? Why kill half of everything, which seems like a needless extreme when you can wave your glove and lo, food for all? Why not just create a Titan in which a genocide is unnecessary?
In that sense, the film is emotionally manipulative and papers over its plot holes with meet cutes. Having said that, it does represent a technical and narrative accomplishment. If this is the culmination of the previous 427 Marvel films, well done. It is filled with cameos, deep references, and Easter eggs, all designed to reward the fangirl and fanboy, while simultaneously offering a narrative that with the briefest of backstory recaps anyone can follow. The special effects are pretty, but at heart the focus is on the humanity of the heroes. I might have complained about that above, but it works. Well done, Marvel Studios.
Lastly, there are two throwaway lines that I think we are meant to see as the heart of the film. In the first, Tony Stark is surprised to find out Thanos knows who he is. “You’re not the only one cursed with knowledge,” he tells Stark. Nothing more is done with the line, but I’m hearing echoes of Ecclesiastes 1:18: “With much wisdom comes much sorrow, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” Thanos does not believe what he is doing is wrong, but he knows that the more of the universe one is aware of, the less possible it is to be happy. To combat this knowledge, Stark uses snark; Thanos uses genocide. I think I prefer Stark’s approach. Linked to this is the moment when Thanos activates all the stones in order to end half the life in the universe all at once. He finds himself in an eighties music video set with Gamora as a child. “Did you do it?” she asks him. “What did it cost?” “Everything,” he responds, tears in his eyes. The Avengers seem to think Thanos revels in his genocide. He does not. He sees it as vital and necessary, but never pleasurable. It cost him all of his followers, who are dead at the end of the Infinity War, and the only being he loved purely. One cannot fight Thanos as one would Magneto, Doctor Octopus, or the Green Goblin. Avengers meet strength with strength and lose. The only moment in the film when they come even close to stopping Thanos is when Manta puts him to sleep. Her hypnotic empathy brings his pain to the surface and stops him. Oddly, Thanos’ problem is not that he is unfeeling but that he feels too much.
As I remove the Blu-ray and put it back in the box, I cannot help but feel that this second time was profoundly different. The initial glow and thrill of the film from the theatre has transformed into a more nuanced and deeper reading of the film as a text for America in 2018. Things are bleak, the bad guys are winning, and our best violence will not solve our problems. Yet there is the promise that we will eventually triumph and perhaps even find some of those lost to us, if we can just get through this war. And I fear that will be harder than we thought, especially if Okoye is right and Wakanda gets a Starbucks. That would be a true sign of the end. Wakanda Forever.